February 08, 2012

Do you teach from the bandstand?

Do you have a plan that you stick with, no matter what? Do you have a plan at all? Do you have a plan that you're prepared to give up totally when a student proposes something, anything, interesting? Are you patient, listening to what's going on, allowing yourself to be pulled, and slick enough (skilled enough?) to react and create something magical out of your box to make a lesson sing?

When we're working with our Design Thinking Schools the main challenge that comes up, at the beginning at least, is the desire of educators to forward plan to the extent that improvisations - or mistakes - can't be seized upon to create something much better than the plan the teacher had written, and probably stayed up until 11pm on Sunday night writing.

Stefon Harris explains in his TED Talk how this over reliance on the plan is, in jazz, a form of musical bullying. As someone who, in his early twenties, almost gave it all up to be a big band drummer, I know exactly what he means, and I know how it feels when 17 other musicians move their plan to accommodate for another's idea.

But I can also picture it in the classroom, where a "gift" is offered up by a students' question (or a student's lack of understanding) but isn't built upon by the teacher. Who or what are you going to allow to improvise and shift your plan today?


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I've been talking about this exact same thing today Ewan! Mistakes are gifts to a teacher. It's an opportunity that should excite us to the core. I often think when I hear teachers say "but when inspectors are only in for 20 mins, how are we to show progress?" It's simple... Create the climate where risks taking is rife, mistake and misconceptions will take place so frequently that progress will not only be maximised but will be obvious to both learners and visitors!

Hi Ewan,
I agree entirely and recall a terse conversation with an associate inspector a few years ago. He was offering an informal, pre visit 'walk through' and was warning of the terrible dangers of veering from 'The Plan'. I was puzzled by this and asked if that meant abandoning any flexibility? He said yes. He recommended sticking rigidly to timetables, no matter what - especially during an inspection.

I told him I'd never done that and frequently followed a pupil's line of thinking if there was real potential for sparkling learning. I told him some of the very best learning and teaching in my class had come about because I was more than willing to respond and capitalise on learning opportunities which presented themselves unexpectedly. I wasn't ditching planning completely but saw it as merely a tool in my L and T professional kit. Sometimes, I'd stick to it, other times creativity and spontaneity were more appropriate.

He condemned me roundly and publicly. "This was ad hoc teaching with no direction" quoth he.

I'm hopeful that his view was not representative of HMIe. I didn't follow his advice then and I doubt I ever will. A plan is only useful while it is relevant. Teacher professional judgement and confidence should determine adherence or divergence.

Who wants to remain in an irrelevant context?

Some of my best classroom periods were the result of my abandoning what I'd meant to do in favour of following a student's lead. And I loved it when they left saying they hadn't had to work that period - they had covered so much and it hadn't felt like hard work at all!

Hi Ewan,
A lot of jazz seems to me to mostly depend on the plan.
Following the gift is 'easy to say but hard to do'.
This is a big ask. I know I had big wins when I ran with the gift but I also remember many times I missed the chance.
is this jazz style sustainable?

It's not a plan, so much as a structure that you use. There are moments where there is content that needs played, all together (the elements of understanding that sometimes students feel they just need to find out) and there are more moments where the direction depends on a group dynamic pushing and pulling (collaboration). There are other moments, still, where knowing how to explore the tangent, the F#, is key.

Sustainable? Totally. Easy? Not at all. But it's these hard things that we must practice.

Yes i totally agree with you. Mistakes provide you the room to learn many things and Creativity is counts more then the traditionally work.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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